Bourdieu in the college admissions office

In the college admissions office of a very highly respected liberal arts college, the admissions officer asks the prospective applicants what they think they might like to study. The first two teenagers say “business,” which is not in the curriculum of this college. Presumably, they and their families want them to get ahead, they see business as the path to success in America, and they assume that attending a highly selective and famous college is a step to business leadership.

Meanwhile, other families in the room also want our kids to get ahead. But we know that there is quite a different pathway that involves intentionally not studying anything as practical and applied as business. If you’re on this path, you know that the right thing to value is a liberal arts education. That will always mark you as someone desirable to employ at businesses and other organizations run by fellow graduates of elite liberal arts colleges.

Paging Dr. Bourdieu, who would explain that a ruling class reproduces itself by defining a certain habitus, or structure of values, that is difficult to acquire and that identifies its bearers as members of the ruling class. The purpose, then, of a highly selective liberal arts college is to transmit the habitus.

That is a hard diagnosis to avoid when sitting in an admissions office. I think there’s a lot of truth to it, although I’d note some complications.

First, there are many paths to wealth, power, and social standing. It’s been said that Washington is full of Harvard grads working for Ohio State grads, and if there’s still truth to that, it’s because America has many centers of power–financial, industrial, military, and political. Bourdieu’s theory may apply more neatly to the France of the grandes écoles than to our stratified–but polycentric–nation.

Second, what you learn from a liberal arts education has incalculable value. It’s not like mastering court etiquette so that you can mingle with aristocrats. You’re learning quantum mechanics, Japanese history, psychometrics–and Bourdieu. These attainments contribute to a good life. They also encourage a range of careers. Many liberal arts graduates just use the habitus to rise in the social hierarchy, but others are inspired to work in kindergarten classrooms, refugee camps, and monasteries. It’s interesting to speculate why the ruling class has chosen rites of passage for its young that are not efficiently designed to produce new rulers. There’s a lot of leakage, as some graduates voluntarily choose not to compete for the top of the social hierarchy.

Third, by rewarding proficiency in the liberal arts, we create incentives to practice these arts at all stages of life. Meritocracy is a highly problematic concept–that is the main theme of this post. But it isn’t an empty idea. Students in a seminar room in a highly selective liberal arts institution really do practice the liberal arts at a remarkably high level. That is not because of their native excellence, but because they–and the adults who care about them–have spent the 18 years before college honing their skills. These kids have worked very hard, and so have their parents and teachers. Many of their peers haven’t made it to the elite colleges because they haven’t performed as well. One outcome is to mark a ruling class by giving them a set of difficult attainments, a habitus. Another outcome is to produce truly excellent scientists, poets, and teachers.

Finally, the people who run these institutions are not intentionally invested in reproducing a ruling class. At least at the level of conscious, deliberate intention, they are motivated by love of the liberal arts and by a sense that the college adds value and provides opportunities for upward mobility. They don’t want to admit and educate only the children of alumni and others like them. They are actually pleased to see students attain the habitus when their parents were far from having it. Diversity, inclusion, equity, and upward mobility are among the highest notional values of these institutions. Such values inspire the educators and administrators and legitimize the whole business. The result is a somewhat diverse actual student body in an institution that still pretty well fulfills the function that Pierre Bourdieu diagnosed.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.